John Kelly’s Racist Remarks on Immigrants Last Week and His Own Family’s History

President Trump (l) with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

John Kelly’s remarks on Friday concerning immigrants went largely ignored because of the daily deluge of bad news from Washington, but they deserve attention. Kelly was asked about the new Trump policies criminalizing unauthorized border-crossers on NPR’s Morning Edition. White House Chief of Staff Kelly said they are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing…” Kelly added, “They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”

Kelly’s own maternal grandfather was an Italian from an immigrant family who lived and worked in Boston knowing no English. According to Politico, he “never spoke a word of English.” He had little education and few skills, but he earned a living peddling fruit on the streets of the city. Not too different from the work that many of today’s undocumented immigrants perform in the same city.

Kelly’s Irish American father and his Italian American mother were hardly champions of assimilation into the White Anglo Saxon Protestant New England culture of the 1950s. Although neither of them were immigrants, they lived in an ethnic enclave. They refused to send their children to public schools or join the mainstream Protestant culture. Instead, they required their son John to attend the local Catholic Church and sent him to be educated by nuns.

If Kelly’s family was both non-assimilated and successful in the United States, why does he doubt that current immigrants can achieve the same goals as his ancestors did?

Many recent studies demonstrate that modern immigrants have lower crime rates and a higher propensity for learning English than did immigrants a century ago, when the Italian branch of Kelly’s family arrived here. So, how are today’s immigrants from Latin America different from Kelly’s forebears in aspects other than race?

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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